Every spring, a popular televised song contest takes Europe by storm. Musicians from over fifty countries participate in Eurovision; a hundred million people tune in to watch.
This May, Azerbaijan hosted the televised song contest in its capital Baku. The oil and gas-rich dictatorship saw the event as an opportunity to sweep its terrible human rights record under the carpet and project a positive image to the world.
In the months leading up to the event, the government waged a “beautification” campaign of massive proportions. Police forcibly displaced tens of thousands of people with very little warning or compensation, and bulldozers razed homes to the ground. In the place of these people’s homes and neighborhoods, the government constructed new parks and artificial monuments to past regime leaders.
Leyla Yunus, a women’s human rights activist and Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, took up the cause of the people. She organized protests, spoke to international policy-makers, and alerted the press. Hours after The New York Times published an interview with Ms. Yunus in which she openly denounced the forced evacuations and called for the protection of property rights, the government bulldozed her home and offices to the ground.
Activists inside were given less than five minutes to evacuate with their lives and lost everything they owned, including years of important social justice work. An official from the Mayor’s office refused to allow them even a few minutes to salvage their computers and documents. Along with the Institute for Peace and Democracy, the only Women’s Crisis Center in Baku and the office for the Azerbaijani Campaign to Ban Landmines were also destroyed.
One senior police officer warned her, “Do not take risks continuing with protests against the demolition, as you have kids. Don’t even think to complain to the prosecutor’s office or the courts…its better that you and your relatives abstain from leaving your houses after dark.”
But Leyla did not back down. She released a statement in which she said, “Direct all of the force of your repressive mechanism, which includes assault, car accidents, murders and the whole arsenal, against me personally, a woman whose only weapon is a word. I demand you immediately stop the crackdown and persecution of my colleagues and their families!”
At this point, Leyla applied to Urgent Action Fund for a Security & Protection grant. The grant provided funds for Leyla and her colleagues to establish a new office, purchase computers, a new security system, and provide Leyla with stress-related medical expenses.
Today, Leyla’s struggle for human rights in Azerbaijan continues. In the days running up to the contest final, dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested in Central Baku. Leyla said: “We live as if in the Middle Ages. It is a very narrow circle of the ruling class which has money from oil,gas and a great corruption system.”
She told The New York Times that she and other activists have gotten little support from the United States because the U.S. views Azerbaijan as an important ally in the stand-off with Iran, and as a country that backs U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. “We have an opportunity,” she said, “to be a democratic country, a bridge between East and West, Christian and Muslim. If we lose this opportunity, we will be the new Iran.”
According to Leyla, many people whose homes were destroyed remain homeless today. Furthermore, authorities have launched a smear campaign against her, claiming that she is provoking the public for no reason.
Leyla asks allies to support her and the people of Azerbaijan by writing to the Monitoring Committee of Parliament Assembly of Council of Europe to condemn the smear campaign and call for justice for those who lost their homes. A sample letter follows, along with names and email addresses where you can send it.
Please call on the authorities of Azerbaijan to stop their efforts to smear the reputation of Ms. Leyla Yunus at once. She is a highly respected women’s human rights defender and has for years advocated on behalf of the people of Azerbaijan. Most recently, she has been advocating on behalf of the people who lost their homes to government bulldozers in the preparations for the Eurovision contest. Many of these people are still homeless! The government has responded by claiming she is merely seeking publicity. The world will not stand for this.
You may send your letters to:
Mr. Andre Herkel, Chairperson on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments
by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee)
cc : First Vice-Chairperson
Ms Lise Christoffersen (Norway)
Mr Pieter Omtzigt (Netherlands)
cc: Deputy to the Head of the Secretariat
Ms Agnieszka Nachilo
Cc :M. Joseph Debono Grech Malta
M. Pedro Agramunt Spain
For more information, read Kiri Westby’s blog in the Huffington Post
View Human Rights Watch’s comprehensive page on Azerbaijan and Eurovision